UK Men's Basketball

Green Horn ready to go

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Nolan Barger at Tates Creek High School to Ralph Willard at Western Kentucky to Kyle Macy at Morehead State to Tom Crean at Marquette.

Those were the coaches who guided Lexingtonian Darrin Horn up the professional ladder to where he was on Wednesday: South Carolina's head coach at the Southeastern Conference Media Days.

When asked what he learned from those coaches, Horn cited Barger's belief in basketball fundamentals, Willard's up-tempo system and Crean's example of how to run a program.

But before he got to all that, Horn began with a bedrock principle of life on and off the court: be true to yourself.

"The biggest thing I learned was you have to be who you are," he said. "That's the most important thing: Coach your personality."

For Horn, that means an ultra competitor cleverly disguised in a youthful, clean-cut persona he clothed in a gray, pin-stripped suit and South Carolina garnet tie.

If teams reflect the coach's personality, then Horn said he wanted "a team that fights. I hope a team that plays unbelievably hard, a team that competes to the final buzzer and plays the game unselfishly and plays the game with a great deal of passion."

Horn memorably flashed that passion and hard play in a most unlikely setting. As a high school player for Tates Creek, he made an impression (not to mention a bruise or two) playing one-on-one in a driveway against Willard, who then was a Kentucky assistant to Rick Pitino.

Willard later talked about how Horn shot an elbow into the middle-aged coach's side.

"He was pushing me," said Horn, still defiant almost 20 years later. "You talk about reflecting a coach's personality. I wasn't going to let him push me around."

During the process of recruiting Horn for Western Kentucky, Willard told the player how he preferred his spunk to another, more talented prospect.

Horn signed with Western after completing a Tates Creek career that included making first-team all-state and leading the Commodores to a state runner-up finish in 1991.

At Western, Horn played on teams that won 20 or more games for four seasons and won two Sun Belt Conference championships.

Upon graduation, Horn immediately began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Western. Coaching seemingly was the only career choice worth considering.

"There's something about competing and being part of a team and being challenged," he said. "All those things that come with athletics that I just love."

This love affair began when Horn coached Tates Creek's freshman team as a senior.

"I don't know what else I would do," he said. "I think there's something else I could do, but I don't know what it is."

After working as an assistant for Macy and Crean, Horn returned to Western as head coach. He compiled a five-year record of 111-48. A 29-victory season in 2007-08, which tied a school record for wins, included the kind of Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament run that commands the attention of major conference members looking for a coach.

But why South Carolina, which hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973?

Horn cited fan interest. Despite a dismal 5-11 SEC record last season, the Gamecocks ranked fifth in home attendance with an average crowd of 12,346.

"I've been surprised by how passionate Gamecock fans generally are," Horn said. "One of the first things I did was throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. It was a sellout."

Horn inherits a team that returns four starters, including all-league point guard Devan Downey.

He plans to use Willard's frenetic up-tempo style, which he expects will excite the fans and, more importantly, give the Gamecocks a better chance to beat superior teams. It's the style he played to great success at Western.

"In some ways it negates your weaknesses," he said. "Because you're not allowing the other team's strengths to come out as much because hopefully they're playing a little faster or spread out."

Horn likened the theory to what Bruce Pearl has done at Tennessee. The Vols have taken the SEC by storm, finishing no lower than second in each of Pearl's three seasons and winning the program's first outright regular-season title since 1967 in 2007-08.

The downside is other programs with fresh starts under new coaches might want similar success.

"That would be unfair," said Pearl, who noted his good fortune included inheriting a NBA-caliber point guard in C.J. Watson.

Pearl's advice for Horn was in the be-true-to-yourself mold. "Do everything you did at Western Kentucky," Pearl said. "What he did at Western Kentucky was very good."

Horn, 35, saw his relative youth as an advantage. It symbolizes a transition in style he called "from safe and solid to playing with no fear of mistakes. Just all out."

And, Horn added, his youth can be a bonus because he hasn't been worn down by the relentless nature of recruiting.

"The extra calls, I'm willing to do that," he said. "Go the extra mile in recruiting, I'm willing to do that. I'm at a point in my career and my life where I'm willing to do that. I'm not sure if in the past that's been the case."